On many sci-fi/space shows, Earth is presented as being a (more or less) unified body by the time we reach the stars. Sure, Babylon 5 had colonies seceding and civil war, and Star Trek panders to us by having several cast members in each incarnation either having accents or the occasional cultural flair. But although those little dashed or solid lines on the map indicating what belongs to who might mean some very nasty wars, the vast array of politics, cultures, beliefs, and practices help make our planet the pageant of alternately beautiful and horrific scenes that it is. However, in many space shows and games, the cultures of earth are transmuted into one bland singular organism.
Not in Flying Mice’s Cold Space.
Cold Space is the sort of game that’s very difficult not to like. Set in an alternate timeline where space travel was discovered hot on the heels of World War II, Cold Space takes the Cold War conflict and spreads it to the other planets of this solar system, and to planets circling stars light-years away. Most of the various peoples, nations, and political systems of our world have found purchase on distant world, all in the framework of a global conflict gone galactic. I found the premise of this game enjoyable, and, if I had a few minor issues here and there, it’s still a fun setting and RPG.
It all starts as follows: in the wake of World War II, the USA begins work on a contragravity system that leads to the discovery of a Faster-Than-Light (FTL) drive. However, the Soviets succeed in flooding the project with spies, and soon both nations are launching rather crude ships to the moon, the other planets, and eventually other systems. In this world, almost a decade before Sputnik, the Race To Space became the Race For Space. As time goes on and technology and space travel is refined, the quarrels, diplomacy, espionage, and sometimes outright slugfests of our own world just a few decades ago manifest themselves on as big a stage as one could ask for.
With Cold Space, you have the option of playing in many different eras. The first decade of space travel, the 1950s, have a rough, pioneering feel to them, as the first colony ships and explorers reach and chart distant star systems. By the 1960s and 1970s, the mood switches to a much more classic Cold War feel, with clashes between the Russians, the Chinese, the Americans, and other smaller powers of the time becoming more frequent. Playing in the 80s sees the beginning of the sweeping changes and radical resifting of political power that the end of that decade would eventually yield. Cold Space does a nice job of providing a section with suggestions and likely professions for a few different themes of each era.
I really enjoy the way humanity is depicted as having propagated throughout the stars in Cold Space. Since space travel was discovered at the beginnings of the Cold War, concepts such as the Eastern Bloc accompanied humanity to the stars. Russian “satellite” states (those nations politically aligned with her) have settled under the USSR ’s sphere of influence, and lines have been drawn by the USA and her allies as well. China is also in the mix, and nations such as the UK and France have also gotten in on the game. For those unaligned nations, the United Nations worked out a program (under the strenuous objections of both the US and Russia) where any nation desiring a colony would be outfitted with the means to do so. So not only are the larger powers and their immediate allies ending up with colonies and worlds, but South American nations, Arab and African states, and even political exiles (yep, Vietnam still happened, though in somewhat different fashion). Some planets, such as the moon, are fairly heavily developed by a multitude of nations, whereas some star systems may only have a single colony with no neighbors for light years.
I’ve heard a few people mention they’d have liked a bit more source material included in the book. I would point out there is a difference between a RPG being sparse with background material and simply leaving open avenues of adventure. There are timelines, “news articles” highlighting key events, rather good bits about this alternate history of Earth and space exploration, and a rather large bit at the end documenting a Time reporter’s grand tour of dozens of systems and colonies. There’s plenty here to work with, though I do think a series of focus books on several of the key colonies or worlds might be well-received.
Cold Space uses Flying Mice’s in-house StarCluster system, which should be pretty easy for most folks to pick up. It’s rules-moderate, but there’s not a lot of unpleasant math or too much resolution lag as an accompaniment. There are times when the rules feel like a slight reduction or streamlining might help, but thankfully these instances aren’t widespread.
Character creation is fairly in-depth, as you take a character concept from childhood and junior high school up to whatever age you wish your character to be. You roll on different charts depending on what type of school your character went to, and you pick up further skill sets to reflect your vocation as you get older. The vocations run the gamut from standard, workaday professions such as entertainer or reporter to civilian “spacer”, spy, or a variety of military professions as well. Templates are provided for those who want something they only have to tweak or who want a prefab character rather than building one from the ground up.
As for as character advancement goes, wealth and skills can increase with age (though past a certain point, of course, physical abilities start to decline). Those not wanting to age their character can still use the advancement tables for increasing and rewarding character experience.
Resolution for skills and tasks isn’t too tough. Basically, you attempt to roll under a target percentile. Extra levels in skills or attribute bonuses increase this target percentile, making it easier to roll under. The GM can add or subtract modifiers as occasion or difficulty level warrants. Combat is also resolved via target percentiles, with skills or situational bonuses making your to-hit number higher. You then roll again for damage, adding in any potential modifiers. Armor in the game is translated as reducing your chances of being hit. Combat and skill resolution has a lot of options and modifiers floating around you can use if you’d like, but at its heart, it’s quick and easy.
So what’s not to like? Well, for those of you who have purchased other Flying Mice products, you’re likely familiar with the stylized “blur” artwork that accompanies said works. While I don’t actively dislike it, it didn’t really do much for me either to evoke setting or feel. Lastly, I dislike the character sheet. Seems like a silly thing, but the character sheet included in this just seems sort of second-rate and visually unattractive. It’s a pet peeve, and like the items a mentioned above, wasn’t a deal-breaker or anything.
On the good/great side of things, Cold Space includes a captivating premise, capable mechanics, and an enthusiastic style. Flying Mice has painted a big canvas with Cold Space, and given the reader/gamer plenty of brushes to add their own touches with. I could easily see Cold Space used in a pulp-style game, or in more of a straight-up approach. The different eras each do nicely in supporting a certain subgenre of game play, be it cloak and dagger, pioneering and exploration, or space combat.
In summary, Cold Space is a great RPG for someone looking for an alternate space/sci-fi setting, or doesn’t want the individual cultures and allegiances of our world simply to fade into the black. It likely won’t do much for sci-fi idealists, but for those desiring a pretty sound space RPG or who think the idea of playing characters such as secret commie agents or Yankee Imperialist Spacemen among the stars sounds entertaining, they’ll probably be pretty happy with this purchase.
Cold Space RPG